The Studebaker Drivers Club
 

My encounter with the Route 66 travelers
by Bob Kabchef

(Printed with permission)

 

After tracking the Potomac chapter's Route 66 tour group across the U.S. since it's departure from Virginia, the day was closing fast when they'd enter the Golden state - California. While I'd initially endeavored to meet them at the border (Needles, Ca.), time constraints dictated that I catch them near Barstow, tour a stretch of 66 with them and leave them at their overnight spot in Victorville, Ca.
So after a bad night's sleep, one eye opened to discern that the clock radio was showing it was 3:15 AM. I closed the eye again and tried to think thru the foggy consciousness as to what I had to do to insure me an' the Transtar would be at the appointed place, at the appointed time.


After commanding my legs over the side of the bed, I found myself activating the coffee maker. Then I headed for the couch - where I'd laid out my clothes the night before. Good thing I've dressed myself enough times in 58 years that I don't have to give it much thought. "Much" thought was something my brain didn't wanna muster just yet at 3:20 AM.


Trying not to bother my slumbering parrots in the adjoining room, I tred quietly back thru the kitchen and turned on a discreet, little light so I could round up my cameras, phone, walkman and other trip takings. Meanwhile the coffee maker was belching forth the black liquid that would hopefully stir my brain from it's stupor. I prepped my huge mug with cream and sweetener and then rounded up a few other snackie items to fend off any munchie attacks that might arise en route.
I carried some of this stuff out to the Transtar and in doing so, got my first look at the weather I'd be facing soon. The night sky was like a stew of stars with cloud dumplings floating in it. The air was crisp and rain-washed. It looked like it would be good hiway cruising weather.


Back in the kitchen, I poured half the pot of java into my insulated, wastebasket-sized mug. Ahhhhh..... that first glorious slurp! Alive again!
Several more trips between the house and the Studebaker and I was ready to go. I went round to each of the parrots in the family room and spoke softly to them. I knew they'd be wondering where I was, come daybreak. As I left the room, Spunk's distinctive voice cracked the darkness - "bye", he said - as softly as Spunk can.

I slid into the seat of the truck and did a mental checklist. Spares, tools, snacks, cameras, clothes, parts to be delivered to my buddy down south for to be chromed.... Check, check, check. Reach for the key.
The Stude 289 obeys the command and, lights on, we ease out of the driveway. Near the entry to the interstate, I stop to get a fresh donut and then to top off the gas tank. Thereafter, onto the freeway and up to speed. Coffee's flowin', gas is flowin', centerline reflectors are flowin' by, heater's blowin' too. Life feels good and meaningful at this point.
I hit hiway 99 and take it south. The truck feels happy at 70 and so I set the cruise there and find the "sweet spot" - seat spot with my butt. Route 66 - here I come!
The drive is rather uneventful thru Bakersfield and onto hiway 58 East. I start to encounter some fits of drizzle but none of it seems serious. Daylight's been making it's debut ever since Bakersfield and now it's revealing the landscape of 58 thru the Tehachapi range. Joshua trees and scrub brush are the prevailing life forms here. I'm sure it would be more intriguing if I were closer to it than the cab of my truck.
All morning I've been thinkin' about this band of hardy souls I'm going to rendezvous with in a few hours. They're the whole reason for this day-long outing of mine. I marvel at the hutzpah of their endeavors. Like me, they ain't no "spring chickens". Some have a decade or more on me, age wise. But unlike most Stude owners I know, this gang is going WAY beyond the typical polishing of their vehicle for the next local car show! Taking a vintage car (or truck) across the continent and back is an accomplishment. Doing so while taking less than interstately roads is even more impressive. I'm envious of them and their adventure. I really am.
I know I could do it - even by myself if I wanted to. But time is my anchor. I'd wanna stop and dawdle along the way even more than this group is. Yet I feel obliged to not be away from my "babies" (Spunk et al) for too long a time as they live for my attention and are unhappy in my absence. (Ask my wife for proof of that) Consequently (and such was the case while I was at South Bend last June) I have a hard time putting them aside mentally when I'm away.
That said, my curiosity and envy was driving me to at least get a tiny sample of the Potomac Seven's experience by throwing in with them for a few miles. So here I was, heading out to accompany them for a ways.
When you finally drop into Mojave, California - you're struck by the stark openness of the desert. Looking to the north from 58 you can't help but notice the sea of idle jet airliners! New jets - old jets, all cocooned and awaiting their fates. I know some of them are there because they're way up in years. But I saw some that I know were quite new. Probably victims of the times we live in. Air travel is down thanks to some religious fanatics. A damned shame.
I stopped and put 9 gallons of gas ($2.19 a gallon gas!) in the truck. Don't know what sorta mileage that equated to - didn't care. I refreshed my coffee can and referred to a map before turning back onto the streets. Heading out of town, I passed an airplane scrapyard. The nose of an Air Force F-111 droops over a wood-slat fence like a puppy looking over the edge of a cardboard box in anticipation of a new owner.
Heading away from Mojave affords yet another glimpse of the herd of sedated airliners that'll likely never be "cleared for takeoff" again. Kinda sad. Puddles pock the roadway and rain can be seen falling off on either side of the concrete ribbon ahead. But the distance beckons with blue skies an' open road. It looks like it's gonna be nice out east.
I hit the cruise control again and settle in for the next leg of road. Straight ahead of me, by some miles, I watch as a large jetliner type plane cuts continuous donuts in the sky. Must be testing something or someone. Eventually the road comes out from under the gray blanket and sunshine fills the cab. It feels good. The air temperature outside must be in the 60s. One thing for sure tho - ever since Mojave - the crosswind has been intense! It grows stronger as the day grows warmer. I have to keep pressure on the steering wheel to offset the gale's push. Eventually, many miles of prickly plants later, signs foretell of Barstow's looming presence.
Now it was just east of Barstow that I experienced a bit of Route 66 when I was traveling to South Bend for the 1997 International meet. There's ONE particular spot that's like a serpent's back. It was really fun to drive when I first hit it and I've always wanted to go back and do it again. Today I was gonna relive that moment. and further, I wanted to videotape the Potomac 7 as they traversed that same bit of blacktop. Of course, I-40 now takes the bulk of the travelers of today. I-40 whizzes along just a stones throw from the aforementioned stretch of 66. I wanted to get there and drive it by myself once again before the 7 Studes showed up to travel it themselves.
Whelp, I took a wrong turn at Barstow. By the time I realized my mistake (and cussed myself for it!) I was headed the WRONG way outta Barstow on I-15. Of course, being I-15 is thru mostly (OK - ENTIRELY!) thru desert here, it was SOME time before I found a desert road overpass where I could get off and then get headed BACK towards Barstow and my rendezvous with the Virginia venturers.
So I get off of I-15 here. Traffic is pretty heavy as I do so. But in stark contrast to I-15, the little road that's allowed an overpass is without a single vehicle as far as one can see in either direction. Now, all that coffee has been percolatin' thru me for the past few hours. I feel a rather urgent need for relief. And given the deserted nature of the road, I decide to yield to "nature" just outta sight of the freeway.
I creep the Transtar just far enough to where I won't be seen from the whizzing (pun intended) traffic behind me. Leaving the truck idle, I exit the cab for a bit of "relief". Even before I brought the truck to a stop, it was apparent that the winds were REALLY whipping outside. Gusts HAD to be in the 35-40MPH range - maybe more.
Take it from me guys. In winds like this, even aiming downwind ain't gonna insure a tidy dispersal. The result was not fun and not pretty. All I had to feel good about when I got back into the sanctuary of the cab was that my bladder was no longer in distress.
That little incident behind me, I reacquainted the truck with I-15 and headed east.

Now, the tourers knew of my intentions to hook up with them eventually. We'd been in touch via E-mail over the past week. And as I approached Barstow earlier I got a call (the magic of cell phones) from Bob Johnstone as to their plans for the day. Things were looking good for our rendezvous even allowing for my inadvertent detour at Barstow. I'd also been in touch with fellow Stude nut, Pat Drnec, as he was supposed to join in too. As things turned out, Pat was unable to get away ultimately but I was still on track.
Further, a fella named Cecil (brother of one of the tour group travelers and the one who hosted the group for lunch in Victorville) had called me to say that he was awaiting their arrival in Barstow as well. He asked that I appraise him when I got to the spot on Route 66 where I'd hook up with the Potomac gang.
A bit more time and mileage later found me turning off I-40 near the little crossroads town of Dagget, Ca. This is where the little stretch of 66 starts that I remember driving some years before. I drove 66 from here towards the tiny burg of Newberry Springs where Bob Johnstone had said they'd be exiting I-40 to follow 66. The land is rolling here but the view is very open since there's very few real trees anywhere around. You can see I-40 throbbing along as it parallels to the south and you can see the busy railroad lines that parallel just to the north. It's mostly just cactus-like plants scattered across open, blowing soil. Oh, and lots and lots of rusting or rotting junk.
I got to drive the serpentine stretch before I ever got to Dagget proper. It was fun but not as much fun as I'd remembered it to be. And poor Dagget..... It has not fared well since I-40 stole it's blood flow. It's just a collection of boarded up buildings with a few desperate-looking houses and tired mobile homes. There was a big, arrow-shaped sign that read "Restaurant" - no restaurant tho - just the big, weathered old sign.
Oddly, percentage-wise, there's probably more Studes per capita, in Dagget than in most little American towns. More about that later.
After obeying the stop sign at Dagget, I pushed the Transtar back to speed again. I think I encountered a whopping two more vehicles on the way to Newberry Springs. But the blacktop along this span of 66 is in pretty decent shape considering it's relative unimportance of today. You can look south and see the big trucks and all droning along on I-40 or you can observe the aging homes (shacks, in many cases) that still cling to 66 as their "driveway".
I finally arrived at Newberry Springs, California. Heh... I'd referred to it as a tiny burg earlier. I guess I was being generous. Newberry Springs - what I could see of it - was made up of one gas station / snack shop on the east exit and a duplicate station on the west exit. There were even a couple of real trees with leaves clustered around each establishment! Other'n that the place was definable only by the intensely purplish-red sand a gravel that was the predominant make up of what you could see. Of course, there was the incessant pull of the gutsy, gusty winds.
I pulled to a stop across the roadway from one of the service stations. The wide shoulders afforded me lots of room to park. I picked a spot that afforded me a good view of the westbound off ramp and figured I'd get my videocam ready and maybe catch the Studebaker train as they came down said ramp. The wind gusts were rocking the truck slightly. And, once I opened the door and got out, I honestly wondered about my ability to hold the camera steady for filming! I weighed my options and scouted the surrounding area. The gas station I was parked across from had a huge gravel parking area next to it that set 20 feet lower than the ground the station was on. The lot was right along the ramp so I figured I'd drive over there and check the possibilities. Once there, it was obvious that this spot was the better choice for several reasons. I moved the truck a bit closer to the offramp fencing and got out the videocam to get ready.
I knew the group had left Needles, CA at around 8AM that morning and it was pushing past 11 at this point. I would just relax until they showed up. I opened the tool box on the truck to retrieve a soft drink and spotted the gold Xmas tree garland I'd swiped from the wife's tree decoration stash. Aha! There was something I could do as I waited!
I started cutting the garland into two foot lengths and then tying the ends of each piece together to form a loop. Fittingly, in the spirit of the acknowledged frugality of Studebaker folks, I secured each knot with a bit of duct tape. I got all my loops configured and stashed them back in the utility tool box.
Route 66 doesn't end at the Newberry Springs exit here. It actually goes a bit further east before it disappears for awhile. What I couldn't know was that the group's "tourmaster" had elected to take this easterly connection to 66 as opposed to getting off where I'd made my stand. So after just a short wait and a phone conversation with Pat Drnec, I was caught off guard when I looked behind me and saw two Larks cruising along on 66!
VIOLA !!! There they were! I stood and watched as first the Larks came into view and then an blue pickup and a '55 President, a convertible, a Avanti (with Paul Johnson waving at me) and another '57 Transtar playing the role of caboose. I was honestly thrilled at watching this train roll by. Wait! - roll by! I knew several of them had seen my Transtar. Where were they going???
My moment of panic was eased once I realized the tourmaster was doing a roundabout in the gas station so they could come and park by me. One by one, they pulled up in the gravel parking area as I stood and took in the marvel of it all. Before I knew it I was being bombarded with questions by some of the travelers while I was trying to get the drivers to line up their Studes for a shot with my camera. That accomplished, I explained that I wanted to film with my videocam as we cruised Route 66 for a stretch. THEN, I would race ahead some and film them as they drove over the rollercoaster section that I'd driven earlier. They all agreed with my plan and we set out together towards Dagget.
What a treat! Here I was in company of TRUE adventurers. Adventurers of a caliber that only a select few could appreciate to the fullest. These hardy souls had already covered the better part of the United States in vehicles that I know many would consider foolhardy to go across town in. (and I'm NOT exaggerating either) And while the vehicles are certainly capable of doing battle on the freeways of today (they actually had to for no small parts of their journey!), they chose to experience travel of a sort that seems archaic today. Following the famed blacktop trail that even had a TV series contrived around it. Remember that primetime show?
The tourmaster led the group in his black '59 Lark hardtop. The rest of the group fell into position behind him. I took up the tail position as I wanted to be able to see the whole train as we struck out. The sun was playing with some ugly gray clouds at this point. And the wind was just stiff and constant. As it happened, the sun was behind one of those low-scudding clouds as we tooled down old 66. I could've had better lighting for filming but it was now or never. There'd be no chance for retakes.
So once we got to cruising speed (about 45MPH - speed limit here is 50), I hoisted my videocam up with my right hand and slowly passed the whole train as I'd explained to them earlier. I figured I wouldn't have to worry about oncoming traffic and my hunch was right. There was none even as I fell back and then passed the train a second time.
With one had on the wheel and the other working the camera (in a bouncy truck and ON an aging bit of blacktop), I knew my results would be less than professional, but what the heck??? History was being recorded and it was my time at bat.
Having enjoyed the sight of a gaggle of shiny South Bend beauties at speed, I pushed the gas pedal hard. My aim was to get into the best spot to film the gang as they dealt with the hilly, little section of 66 that's just the other side of "downtown" Dagget. Yeah, I broke the speed limit a bit. I'm sure the only folks who might have noticed were the Stude drivers I was leaving behind. I did obey the stop sign at the center of Dagget. And as I did so I noticed a tan 2R truck sitting close to the intersection. Didn't look like a derelict either! I grabbed my digicam and shot a picture of it. And as I eased away from that stop, I spotted a solid C-cab cab sitting amongst some old BrandX iron too. I later learned from Paul Johnson that there'd been a Zip Van at that same intersection. I guess the 2R kept me from noticing the vintage mailtruck.
Again I stood hard on the gas pedal and the Transtar's 289 did it's thing. I finally achieved the spot where I wanted to film and pulled off on the shoulder. At this point, the wind was blowing SO HARD, I had a tough time pushing the door open! Undaunted, I got out a tripod, attached the videocam and tried to find a good spot to film from. Hah! One gust tried to throw camera and tripod to the ground.
A big, gray cloud denied me fair lighting. And even with the tripod to steady things, it was obvious that optimum footage wasn't gonna be possible. Again tho, this was the time - this was the place. I'd make do. And after a few minutes I spotted the familiar grille of a Lark closing in. I set the cam's zoom to a spot I felt good about and turned the thing on. Obviously, in the course of their catching up to me, several hurried brand X'ers had penetrated the group's entourage. Trying to pass the Stude, no doubt. I had no choice but to include them in the footage. Once all had passed me by, I quickly stashed the tripod, put the videocam in the front seat and zoomed off to catch up. I did so just as they were about to get back on I-40 (the little section of 66 ends here).
Out on the freeway, I flirted with the train of Studes just to take it all in from various angles. What a treat to behold. And it was almost as much fun to watch the "other" traffic notice the Studebakers. I tagged along as they got off the interstate in Barstow and rolled into a Shell station/ store. Here we met up with Cecil, a brother of one of the tour group. Cecil lives in Victorville, CA which was the destination of the day for Saturday. He would be hosting the group (and me too, I'm grateful to say) for a luncheon at his home. While some of the group gassed up (and gagged at the $2.19 regular!), I chatted with Bob Johnstone and Paul Johnson and others. Cars gassed, bladders relieved, conferencing with the lunch host all behind us, we again headed out for the open road. We were to pick up another section of Route 66 again and take it all the way to Victorville. I confess, ol' StudeBob was in heaven this day. On the road with a bunch of (not just Studebaker owners - no) Studebaker DRIVERS! A happy group out defying what passes for conventional wisdom in pursuit of a goal of fun. I was sittin' atop the peak of my fun index at that point! It just don't get any better'n that. No sir.
And as to the speed we moved along at. Sure - speed limits were greater than what we were doing. But just what IS the hurry on a journey like this? Going fast is fun. I don't deny that. But easing along and taking in the sights has it's own appeal too. Imagine going slow enough to actually let folks SEE your Stude instead of wondering where a cop is when you need one. Or how about the gratification of being able to realize feedback from those who DO notice your vintage beauty? There were numerous times I witnessed folks stopping to watch us cruise by. You'd see them stop, behold and develop a smile before the last of our 8 beauties had passed them. There were also honks and waves from other motorists as they noticed us in spite of their hurry or their cell phones distracting them. Here was a brief - all too brief - glimmer of a simpler era where (horrors!) you had to stop and use a pay phone if you wanted to call and check to see if your mother still loved you. A time when life moved seemingly easier. When American families existed on one paycheck. A paycheck that was garnered by your dad working at an honest-to-god factory where they made American goods for American consumers. Where healthcare costs were less than a bag of groceries.
These 8 hulking, throbbing, metal testimonies were evidence that such a time HAD existed. The sight of them winding along old 66 and the times they bore testament to made me both proud and sad at the same time. My playing "tail-end Charlie" to this group, afforded me one great view after another as the blacktop wound left, right, up or down. The reflections of the brightwork (the sun was shining now) as each Stude snaked along was intriguing to the eye. I might even go so far as to call it a virtual, visual orgasm. (sigh.......)
All too soon we arrived at the quiet little Victorville neighborhood where Cecil would have us as his guests. While we jockeyed for parking spots along the curbs, a reporter was there with a cameraman, taking in our arrival. I walked over to have a closer look at the red and black Transtar that was involved in the tour. Pretty cool truck! V8 WITH a factory 5-speed no less. Pretty darned rare, that is.
I chatted with Paul a bit and Bob and Larry too. Then we went in to partake of the buffet lunch that was laid out. Man, it was good food! I was really hungry as I hadn't eaten anything but that one donut since I'd started out at 3 AM. And once we'd all gotten our first pass at the food, we set around an visited while we munched and gobbled.
After a bit, I figured it was time to spring my little talk on them. I wanted to formally welcome them to California and tell then how I envied their adventurous outing.
I went out to the Transtar and secretly retrieved the gold wreaths I'd made earlier day. I bundled them up and hid them under the flannel shirt I had on and went back to the room where everyone had gathered to digest their lunch. After a moment of banter with Larry Merhaut, I asked if I could have everyone's attention for a moment. I started in by telling them how intensely proud I was of their adventurous spirit and that I wished I could do more of their trek with them. One gal asked me why I didn't assemble such a group to do the same trip in reverse. I spoke only the truth when I replied that I knew few local Stude folks in my neck of the woods that would drive their Studebaker to the next county let alone across the continent and back.
Then I think I had them wondering for a moment as I started to tell how my dear wife was gonna be scratching her head next year when she got out her Xmas tree decorations. I said I'd have to come up with some wild excuse to keep myself out of hot water. With that, I produced the wad of glittering gold garlands ("Lei's" if you will) and explained that I wanted to do SOME little thing of recognition and welcome to the "Golden State". Whereby I proceeded to slip a Lei over the head of each traveler. I think they liked it and I know I got a boot out of it. And as corny as it might have been - the feeling behind my adoration of them was rock solid genuine.
After the reporter had gotten all the facts and more that he wanted about such daring feats, we all started to gravitate back to our Studebakers. The group had rooms reserved at a local hotel and some of them were going to have their Studes greased and checked over at a local garage. Said garage had been arranged for in advance so they were ready and willing to take on the Studes that were coming. I drove with a few of the Studes until I found my turnoff that led to I-15. I had a rendezvous with a buddy in the Los Angeles area to keep and then it would be another 250 miles back home.
All in all, I did over 500 miles that day. My 3:15 startup ended at 11:45 when I slid back into the bed I'd started from. With the lights out - I lay there mentally reliving some of the day's events. The Transtar had run flawlessly all the way as had the 7 other Studes I'd joined in with. It was a great and memorable day with a great and memorable bunch of SDCers. There's no stack of trophies that could equate to the pleasure I'd had in sharing a bit of their odyssey.
May they have a safe and easy journey back to ol' Virginny. We are brethren in spirit and interests. And they have more respect from me than they can fathom. Studebaker is vibrantly alive as long as folks like these show their stuff!

 

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